4 Options for U.S. Grand Strategy Going Forward | News | Department of Political Science

One of the most important—yet underappreciated—aspects of foreign policy is the grand strategy with which any state must grapple. As we have examined, a grand strategy is an outline of how a state manages its resources as a means to its ends. Whether these ends are oriented toward conquest, security, the spread of a particular ideal, or economically motivated, every state needs a grand strategy to survive in the modern world. So, as a global superpower, what are the alternatives to US grand strategy? Not only in the current geopolitical climate, but as we look to the future?


After 20 years of occupation in Afghanistan, it is understandable for many Americans to wish to depart from military intervention abroad and focus instead on diplomacy. 2021 report from Rand The corporation says that implementing a realist grand strategy would require the U.S. to “adopt a more cooperative approach toward other powers, reduce the size of its military and military presence, and end or negotiate some of its security commitments.”

A moderate stance relies more on diplomacy to resolve conflicts and encourages other states to take the lead in their own security so that the US can focus only on vital interests. What would a shift toward moderation look like? With this approach, the report states, the country would have a smaller military, fewer security commitments and a higher bar for launching an armed response.

One of the most famous “restraints”. MIT Professor Dr. Barry Posen. In his book titled “Temperance”, Dr. Posen argues that “the United States has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on unnecessary military preparations and unnecessary wars, which it can no longer afford. The wars have unnecessarily killed thousands of US military personnel and injured thousands more.

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NDISC Principal Dr. Eugene Gholz, along with his co-authors Darryl Press and Harvey Sapolsky, expressed support for the grand strategy in their 1997 article “Come Home America” in which they stated, “The United States often intervenes in the conflicts of others, but consistently without rationale. Without a clear understanding of how to advance US interests, and sometimes with unintended and costly consequences.”

Deep engagement

While it is counterintuitive to moderation, deep engagement strategies are also viable. Citing Stephen Brooks and William Wohlforth, Jeffrey Friedman outlines four key components of grand strategy:

  1. The US maintains enough military power to defeat any other state.

  1. such as provide security commitments to allies NATOJapan and South Korea.

  1. Take advantage of the benefits of this protective network for financial gain.

  1. Participation and leadership in the rules-based international system.

Deep linking strategies are expensive. As Friedman notes, the United States spends more than $1 trillion on its foreign policy agenda each year.

Brooks and Wohlforth can count themselves deeply preoccupied when they say, “Repealing the security guarantee would make the world and the United States less secure. In Asia, Japan and South Korea will likely expand their military capabilities if the United States withdraws, which could trigger a dangerous response from China.”

Liberal Internationalism

20221025 Ndc GrandStrategy Restraint 600x400
Through a grand strategy of restraint, the US Diplomatic solutions to the conflict will be pursued.

While deep engagement sounds like the status quo, the US is not currently pursuing a deep engagement strategy—the current grand strategy is liberal internationalism—in fact, Friedman says President Trump has been an exception to many modern presidents in that his “behavior has largely been deep engagement rather than liberal internationalism.” Compatible with prescriptions.

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If this is the current US approach to grand strategy, it is especially important for us to understand what this strategy entails. International liberalism refers to the belief that states should achieve multilateral agreements among themselves, uphold rules-based norms, and spread and embed liberal ideals—specifically, liberal democracy. The model of liberal internationalism allows states to intervene in other states in pursuit of liberal objectives and humanitarian aid, although violence is positioned as a last resort.

Unfortunately, the shortcomings of the liberal international model should not be overlooked: the NATO The intervention in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the bombing of Yugoslavia represent a dark time in the history of grand strategy.

President Woodrow Wilson is considered among the first modern liberal internationalists—particularly through his work on the League of Nations, the precursor to the United Nations. Even Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton subscribe to this grand strategy.

Conservative primacy

Does global security depend on the decisions and actions of the United States? Is the US the only hegemony in the world? If so, the US should adopt a grand strategy of conservative primacy. Paul Ave, Jonathan Markowitz, and Robert Reardon state that while there may be differences and disagreements among group members, “all forms of conservative priority formation combine classical liberal assumptions and hegemonic stability theory to arrive at more definitive grand-strategic prescriptions. These prescriptions are hegemonic.” Stability is based on a form of theory that combines ‘utilitarian’ and ‘coercive’ elements.”

Conservative primacy, like liberal internationalism, promotes liberalism, particularly democracy as opposed to authoritarianism, and capitalism and free trade as opposed to communism. Unlike liberal internationalism, however, which prioritizes diplomacy and negotiation, “proponents of conservative primacy do not deny spreading democracy by the sword” such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

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Arguably, there were undertones of conservative primacy at play when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “An international order that reflects Our values is the best guarantee of our lasting national interest” [emphasis added].

US Grand Strategy

The last three of these grand strategies are part of hegemonic stability theory, which holds that “international economic openness and stability are most likely when there is a single dominant state.” Restraint, on the other hand, argues that a state can secure its own existence by preventing other states from amassing enough power to overthrow them.

Like all good principles, this one can be charted two-by-two:

International organizations are critical to protecting US interests



Domestic institutions are critical to protecting US interests


Liberal Internationalism

Conservative primacy


Deep engagement


*Table courtesy of Texas National Security Review

As you can see, there are many options available for US grand strategy going forward. Which policy appeals to you? Are you ready to learn more and make your voice heard on a bigger scale? The Notre Dame International Security Center provides a platform for students to learn about international relations, foreign policy and grand strategy. If you would like to know more, we hope you will contact us.

Originally published by Notre Dame International Security Center at ndisc.nd.edu continued October 26, 2022.


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